Truths from Private Spaces

As an undergraduate Jewish studies major, I stuffed my brain and bookshelves with the literature of Jewish feminism: Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, On Being a Jewish Feminist, Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, Yentl’s Revenge: The New Next Wave of Jewish Feminism, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition. These books lit up my curiosity, my politics, and my indignation. Now, Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity (Ben Yehuda Press, $14.95) confronts the taboos of sexuality and women in the observant Jewish community through first-person poetry and prose. It deserves a space among the classics.

Monologues is composed of truths that until now, have been spoken about in dorm rooms, synagogue bathrooms, camp bunks, and on Shabbat afternoon walks, but have never been rounded up and presented to the world. While religious expectations—modest dress, not touching the opposite sex until marriage, observing the laws of ritual purity, dominate the text, the reality is that all women will recognize themselves in these pages.

You don’t have to have spent years in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school to know that consent is a rusty, if not completely unknown, and even threatening concept to many. You don’t need to have experienced pregnancy or sexual assault. What we do collectively understand (even if we don’t quite know it) by virtue of walking around in our gendered bodies, is shame, and the work inside this anthology succeeds in facing it, cracking it open, and looking at its insides, all in the name of undercutting its power and letting the air out of tightly held secrets, and ultimately, assuring readers that they are most definitely not alone.

“My community preaches acceptance and love and that women have no place in Simchat Torah.” writes Jennifer Brenis in her poem, “Synonyms.” In the piece, Brenis articulates another experience that women know well: gaslighting. What we say happened didn’t happen, we’re overly sensitive, paranoid, fragile. What’s close and dear to us is used as ammunition. The authors in Monologues have spent their lives in Jewish communities; they build and sustain and fight for them, they have followed the rules. Yet all around them are voices telling them that while they’re allegedly vital to these communities, they’re not completely part of them, and the experiences they’ve had in them aren’t real, and what happens to them is their own fault. The anonymous writer of “Shame” wonders if her sexual assault would have happened her skirt hadn’t been short, and if perhaps “Orthodoxy is right and I should not be intimate with members of the opposite sex because this is what happens.”

Girls are taught to be good—don’t be (too) sexual, too aggressive, too loud, too
smart. If you’re Jewish, don’t talk about anything that could be seen as damaging, disloyal to the community, even when it’s the truth. It’s an exhausting order, not just tired, but stodgy and irrelevant. Between the pages of Monologues are testaments to the fact that telling the truth is radical, and so is Judaism. These writers know that telling the truth not only restores power to the truth teller, but has the potential to bring new energy to structures that could use some redemption.

Chanel Dubofsky is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.